All of the Ways North Korea Could Kill Lots of People (Without Nuclear Weapons)
North Korea has a history of provoking its neighbors, enemies and even friends with aggressive, reckless behavior. While the regime of leader Kim Jong-un has upped the ante by very publicly testing long-range missiles and nuclear weapons, he maintains a stable of other, more immediately dangerous provocations. These range from attacks along the demilitarized zone to pitched sea battles with South Korean forces, all of which could be unleashed at any time.
In recent years, North Korea has initiated several attacks at sea against South Korean forces, ambushing them and causing severe casualties. As of 2001, North Korea was estimated to have 810 ships, about half of which are gunboats, split between the West and East Fleets. North Korea has started several naval battles with the South, including the 1999 and 2002 Battles of Yeonpyeong, and the 2009 Battle of Daecheong.
Unfortunately for North Korean sailors, South Korean vessels tended to be larger, better protected and more heavily armed, and Pyongyang’s navy, despite the publicity, often took a beating. Perhaps in response, in 2011 North Korea shifted attacks from the surface to subsurface, sinking the ROK Navy corvette Cheonan with a torpedo. The torpedo, a CHT-02D acoustic homing torpedo, was launched from a midget submarine and struck the Cheonan, breaking her in half and killing forty-six sailors.
An attack by North Korean gunboats or submarines is possible, but the recently discovered presence of the KN-01 missile, a copy of the Russian Kh-35 antiship cruise missile, adds another tool to the North’s provocation toolbox. A low-flying, high-subsonic missile similar to the American Harpoon or French Exocet, the KN-01 can be launched from land or sea and is an extremely dangerous threat to South Korean navy vessels.
Another provocation that is relatively easy to initiate is the bombardment of South Korean territory with field artillery. In 2010, a North Korean rocket artillery battalion unleashed a barrage of more than 170 rockets on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. The strike killed two ROK marines who were part of the island garrison, and wounded several civilians. Unlike the sinking of the Cheonan, South Korean forces struck back immediately, lobbing eighty 155-millimeter howitzer rounds back at North Korean territory.
The advantage of surprise artillery strikes is that they can be executed with minimal preparation from North Korean territory. North Korea has plenty of mobile artillery for the task, from seventy-six-millimeter self-propelled guns to the gigantic 170-millimeter Koksan howitzers, with ranges sufficient to strike targets in Seoul. That being said, South Korea has already set a precedent for retaliation, so the North can expect immediate counterstrikes after any artillery attack. Also, depending on the nature of casualties inflicted, this method of provocation has a potential for escalation beyond Pyongyang’s original intent.
A third attack vector is ambushes and raids against UN forces along the demilitarized zone. North Korea staged several attacks along the DMZ from the late 1960s into the 1980s, causing casualties among ROK and U.S. forces. The 160-mile-long, 2.5-mile-wide DMZ is difficult to completely secure, and there may yet be more underground infiltration tunnels undiscovered by U.S. and South Korean forces. Infiltrators could also be sent north via midget submarine or light aircraft, the latter flying low to avoid radar.
Once over the border, North Korean infiltrators could conduct a wide variety of attacks against an array of targets. They could penetrate deep into South Korean lines to attack a military or political target, such as a headquarters or government building, although that would almost certainly be a suicide mission. A more low-risk mission for North Korean infiltrators could be to mine and booby-trap known South Korean army border patrol routes just over the border, escaping before the patrol enters the area.
Finally, the use of VX nerve agent to assassinate Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia in February 2017 points to a gruesome, previously unused North Korean capability—the use of chemical weapons. The attack utilized well-established North Korean practices designed to smuggle goods in and out of the country, the country’s existing chemical weapons stockpile, and a network of agents across Malaysia and southeast Asia.
At this point, it is reasonable to assume that North Korea is capable of smuggling chemical weapons—only a small amount of which is necessary for a widespread, damaging attack—across Asia with varying degrees of success. Innocent, locally recruited cutouts, similar to the women recruited for the Kim Jong-nam assassination, could be tricked into assisting with an attack, giving their North Korean employers time to exit the country.